Gardens As Living Love
Today, snow lies deep around our snug little home and the neighborhood gardens are transformed into soft humps and curves. There’s enough snow to keep most people indoors, and without traffic noise, the only sounds are bird chirps, including the insistent buzz of our resident hummingbirds. Though the nights have been cold, the hummingbird feeders only froze solid once; that sugar water resists freezing until it stays in or below the mid-20s for quite a while. I thawed the feeders and put out the first one, only to be dive bombed by a very determined male Anna’s. When I hung the second feeder up, I realized that he thought that one was HIS and ought to have been replaced first. Live and learn!
All weekend the hummers stayed close to the feeders; I read in an Audubon newsletter that they need to feed every 10-15 minutes when awake. No wonder they were eagerly for me to replace their slushy nectar with freely flowing liquid. I mixed up the warm sugar water (always at the same ratio of 4 cups water to 1 cup sugar) and filled the feeder fuller than usual, figuring that the larger volume of liquid would freeze more slowly. Taking feeders in at dusk is easy, but putting them back out at dawn is less fun, so I was glad that the overhang of the porch roof provided enough protection to keep them liquid.
Natural Bird Food
Maritime winters are usually mild enough that a fair number of flowers remain for hummingbirds, from random penstemons and rosemary blossoms to sweet alyssum and calendulas, which are apt to bloom a bit any month of the year. Hardy fuchsias often produce late blossoms too, and our resident hummingbirds visit them daily. They also enjoy the fragrant golden bells on various mahonias, from towering Charity to dainty little repens. Winter blooming sasanqua camellias are also popular, especially those like Yuletide with single blossoms, which are easier to access than ruffled double blossoms. Similarly, single hellebores are favored over the densely packed doubles, not too surprising, since some are sterile. Flowering currants and salmonberry were just beginning to open before the snow and I noticed the hummingbirds nuzzling them ardently. Perhaps they know it’s Valentine season, when love is in the air.
When I practice gratitude (something I’ve been working hard on for the past few years), birds and gardening are high on my list of things I’m grateful for. I love birds for their bravery and beauty, cheerfulness and exuberance, and I love gardening for the deep delight of sharing life with plants. I love pottering among plants, and just looking at them makes me feel tender, whether watching tiny sprouts mature into independent beings or seeing beloved plants age out after providing many years of beauty. I’m grateful to be nearsighted so I can admire the tiny dusting of pale pink freckles on the creamy faces of dwarf Trillium pusillum and see the shimmer of pollen on snowdrop stamens. I’m grateful for every new leaf, each bud and blossom at this in-between season, with winter on the wane and spring on the wing.
Learning To Love
Perhaps most of all, I am grateful for the slowly gained knowledge that allows me to nurture plants that need a little help and leave those that don’t to fend for themselves. Tending plants feels holy, like a sacred task that offers health and healing to the caregiver as well as to the plants. For many years, I would do almost anything to try to bring struggling plants back to health, but as I age myself, I’m finding that allowing plants to take their natural path also feels like honoring them. If certain plants can’t thrive in my garden, I’ll give them away rather than try to manipulate the situation to please them. If others thrive all too well, I’ll find them new homes where there’s room for their natural ebullience. Just as shearing plants into cubes feels deeply disrespectful to me, priding myself on making plants grow where they aren’t truly suited feels now more like willfulness and less like skill. As I’ve learned to love my plants more wisely, I’m more apt to appreciate them for what they are by nature and less apt to interfere.
I was recently reminded of a long ago garden visit with an author who wrote about heroism in women’s lives. At one point, I had to attend to a child and left her wandering in the garden. When I returned, she looked dazed and horrified. When asked what was wrong, she blurted out, “This seems like so much WORK; how can you do it?” She saw me as a misguided woman making heroic efforts on what was useless labor. I was astonished, then amused, explaining that what she saw as drudgery was nourishing, sustaining, and actively fun for me. Gardening provided relief from endless hours writing at a desk and took me out of my mind and brought me into my whole being. I saw garden making as an art form, a creative, fruitful expression of my love for plants and the whole natural world. It was also the source of my work; everything I did in the garden served to nourish the articles and books I wrote to support my family. What’s not to love?
Plant Lovers Are Lucky
That clash of viewpoints convinced me that we gardeners are especially fortunate in feeling so at home out of doors, as the desk-bound often don’t. We revel in getting “dirty”, in plunging our hands into lovely soil, in spreading compost, in getting a load of well aged manure. As a young woman, the garden taught me that I was capable of having great fun, even though I dislike parties and most social gatherings. My idea of fun was just different, as my ideas about what’s normal also proved to be. Different and rich and wonderfully rewarding. Over the years, my gardens have also taught me true patience; I realized that in adult relationships, I had rarely been patient, just long-suffering.
Plant love showed me where I truly am patient, contented to wait for buds to appear, swell, open and develop into fruit. I delight in the slowly building joy that comes from growing a tree or shrub from seed. I’ve learned to delight in the passing of the seasons as my plants rose in triumph and fell in decay. I’ve learned to appreciate the role of decay, not as loss but as recycling summer’s beauties into compost. I’ve learned to work steadily but slowly, changing tasks often to avoid straining aging muscles. Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned from my garden is how to nurture myself. Whenever I feel discontented, it only takes a few minutes of active work in the garden to reconnect me with the flow of time and change that gives gardening much of its allure. In touching the earth and handling living plants, we are joined into the great changing cycles of life that connect all living things. As we engage with plants, our spirits are soothed and supported and our deep love can bloom.